Thoughts on creating a Trauma-Informed Classroom

Some initial pedagogical reflections

I think a good deal about pedagogy, which is a fancy word for educational design. One of the aspects of good pedagogy that has been on my mind a lot lately has to do with the ideas of power structures in the classroom.

In particular, this has drawn me to explore some core concepts. Among these are the idea of the trauma-informed classroom, as well as intentional anti-racism and de-colonization. Today I am going to explore the first of these concepts, and my intention is to look at the others in weeks to come.

The Trauma-Informed Classroom

A couple weeks ago I had a conversation with Dr. Michael Lovell, president of Marquette University. He has been working for the past several years to address the generational trauma in the greater Milwaukee community.

One of the markers Lovell relies on to help him in his work is a simple test made by the Centers for Disease Control to check for adverse childhood experiences.

Dr. Lovell relayed a sobering statistic: in our country today, it is likely that one out of every two people you encounter—a full 50% of the population—has had a significant traumatic experience. Moreover, there is data that shows that these kinds of exposures to trauma can negatively effect outcomes across a full spectrum of health- and occupationally-related measurements. In other words, trauma makes it harder for people to succeed in school, advance in the workplace, and stay healthy.

To me, that means we need to completely re-think our approach to education.

If 50% of the students in my classes have experienced trauma that will effect how they function and succeed, then I cannot simply set up my classes for the “best case scenario” and believe that I am serving my students. To do that is to set a large number of my students up for invisible obstacles that will result in diminished performance or failure.

Instead, I feel it is my responsibility to find ways to incorporate trauma support and recovery into the very fabric of the educational moment. To me, this means I am discovering, again and again, how to create an increasingly trauma-informed classroom.

It begins with me: I'm a person in active recovery. I am a survivor of significant childhood trauma (when I took the ACEs test, I scored a 9 out of 10). In order to be a functional person, I incorporate a lot of practices from the 12 step tradition, as well as from other recovery traditions, into basically everything that I do.

The twelfth step says, in part, We practice these principles in all of our affairs. This means, when I step into the classroom, I'm practicing recovery in the classroom. This is how I have been operating, on a personal level, for years.

This means I have already had a classroom that is trauma informed from the standpoint of the instructor. My challenge now is to figure out how to create a classroom situation that is also trauma informed from the standpoint of the student experience.

This means that acting like the classroom is going to be a normal space where we can just set up rigid taxonomic categories and have them function without naming them as structures of power and control is not a solution, it’s the heart of the problem. Reinforcing the idea that the students must present in my space as “normal” just means that, for students with trauma, the entire institution is designed to create a threat without the obviousness of the threat.

So, as an educator, I'm trying at every moment to try to kind of deconstruct that threat and undermine it. To the extent that I can, I will not be an agent of threat and I will not work for the tyranny of “normal” in the classroom.

That means that my classrooms have a different function, in some respects, from more “traditional” classroom spaces.

Active Listening

A major portion of my own recovery has been a dyadic protocol that goes a couple of different names. In the Orthodox Christian and Catholic traditions it's often called the Imago technique. The way that I learned it, it is called active listening. I was introduced to it when my wife and I were in couples therapy at the start of our relationship (at that time, I was in multiple recovery modalities to help with my own trauma).

The way that it is practiced in our household is like this: if someone says something to me, like, “I'm feeling really pissed off right now,” my job in that moment is not to in any way color the reality or interpret the reality. My job, first of all, is simply to name back to the person what I've just heard their reality to be.

In real time, that looks like me saying, “So what I hear you saying is that you're pissed off right now. Is there more about that?” The task is to repeat back everything I hear, as best I can, until the other person says “No, that’s all.”

At that point, I can say, “May I respond?” or “May I ask a question?” But the point is that the person in distress will feel that their experience has not only been heard, but validated, without being re-narrated.

What does this look like in the classroom? Well, for me, it means I practice a version of this technique with my students.

When we read a common text outside the classroom, part of the preparation for class discussion is to have each student write a 250 to 500 word response, which is sent to me before the class meeting. The responses are not simply summaries or overviews, but I encourage students to find the point of their intellectual or emotional response to the text. Did it enliven them, or anger them, or confuse them? I encourage them to speak from that place.

Then, when we get into the classroom, my job as the educator becomes less about lecturing or “dumping” information on the students. Instead, I became a facilitator of a conversation, where the students are invited to interact about the text, using their own preparations as a starting point.

There are several goals in this moment. First, I want my students to experience me, the “expert” in the situation, valuing their words and taking their experience of the text seriously.

Second, my intention is for them to experience me relaying their positions to other students accurately, not coloring the meaning. The see me speaking their words back to them, and to others, in a manner where they recognize them as their words, as they intended them to be heard.

Finally, my hope is that these students will see—in real time—the effect their words have on the positive learning of others around them. They come to see that they are teaching their peers, not me. I’m just helping to curate the process, but the power is with them, and their words.

It is a small step, but returning to my students the efficacy of their experience is a vital foundation to how I am thinking about a classroom space that takes seriously the reality of trauma.

In coming weeks, I will come back to this idea, and build on it. For now, I welcome your thoughts and responses.

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